This time, the lasting image of the U.S. Women’s World Cup champions will not be a soccer player in a sports bra.
It will be Carli Lloyd, a tough-as-nails 32-year-old from New Jersey, roaring with her arms outstretched as her shot from the center circle landed in the net, the third of her three goals during a magical 16 minutes on an unforgettable Sunday at BC Place.
“A beast, an absolute beast,” is how U.S. coach Jill Ellis described Lloyd as the team celebrated the 5-2 final victory over Japan. “She’s a rock star.”
They are all rock stars – for the time being – just like the 1999 championship team. Both games were watershed moments for women’s sports, affirmation that Title IX legislation and America’s efforts for gender equity do pay huge dividends.
A record-breaking TV audience of 25.4 million tuned into Fox for the match, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. It topped all 2015 NBA Finals games, and was the highest-rated Sunday prime-time show this season. Viewership peaked at 30.9 million toward the end of the game. The previous soccer record had been 18.2 million viewers for the U.S. men’s World Cup match against Portugal last summer.
As the mother of a 15-year-old soccer-playing daughter, I confess I got misty-eyed watching those jubilant, strong, hard-working women hoist the trophy in a shower of gold confetti as my daughter and her teammates celebrated together back in Miami, decked in stars and stripes at a watch party.
Those women in baggy shorts and knee socks are healthier role models than Kim Kardashian, Miley Cyrus or rail-thin fashion models.
It is encouraging to see advancements in the women’s game since 1999.
There were watch parties large and small across the United States, and among those tweeting congratulations were President Obama, Tiger Woods, Justin Timberlake, Andre Agassi, Kobe Bryant and Tom Hanks.
When I boarded my return flight in Vancouver on Monday morning, the flight attendant asked whether the passengers were happy with the result from Sunday’s match, and the plane erupted into cheers.
Consider that when Team USA won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, players faxed results to their families because there was so little media coverage. Roughly a dozen fans awaited the team at the airport when it arrived from China.
The field depth and level of play is far better than it was in the 1990s. France is a fantastic team, but had the misfortune of losing in the quarterfinal to top-ranked Germany on the final shot of a penalty shootout. England had its coming out party, finishing in third place with a stunning win over Germany. Colombia, Netherlands and Australia proved they belonged and figure to be stronger by the 2019 World Cup in France.
And U.S. coach Ellis was criticized by fans and media for her tactics and lineups early in the tournament, just like male coaches in men’s sports. That is progress.
But let’s not get so lost in the celebration that we ignore the inequities that still exist.
Let’s not forget that FIFA forced the women to play their World Cup on artificial turf, something they would never ask the men to do for fear of injury. The U.S. women’s team was awarded $2 million for winning Sunday. The German men got $35 million for winning last summer. The men’s teams that lost in the first round of the World Cup earned $8 million.
While America celebrates its female athletes, most of the world still ignores theirs.
When it comes to professional opportunities and salaries, the disparity between men and women is staggering. Argentine star Lionel Messi makes $27 million a year with Barcelona and another $40 million in endorsements. Major League Soccer players can make big money — Kaka makes $6.6 million a year, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore $6 million, and Clint Dempsey $4.9 million.
Women who play in the National Women’s Soccer League earn between $6,000 and $30,000, with most in the $15,000 range. Every player on the U.S. team except Abby Wambach plays in the league, and their salaries are subsidized by U.S. Soccer. Still, they are paid a fraction of what men make. The NWSL is the third attempt to professionalize women’s soccer since 1999. The first two failed.
Some NWSL players are boarded at host families’ homes – including U.S. World Cup starters Meghan Klingenberg and Morgan Brian. They play for the Houston Dash and live at the home of NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy with his wife and two daughters.
Van Gundy has become a huge supporter of women’s soccer.
He said in an interview with publication For the Win: “The example they set for me having been in the NBA for a long time, they just have a different perspective because they’ve never had it easy. … They’re just really excited about the opportunities and how they go about it is impressive.
“The utter lack of sense of entitlement was actually startling for me … the most difficult diva of women’s soccer would be the easiest NBA player ever.”
He urged people to support the NWSL.
“Go to the games,” Van Gundy said. “It doesn’t matter if you have daughters or sons. You want to see great athletes competing, setting the right example. Going is the best thing anybody can do because they’ve gotta find a way to make [the league] stick and work this time.”
I would love to think fans will follow Van Gundy’s advice. But I seriously doubt that will happen. Most of the U.S. players will go back to being the little-celebrated, grossly underpaid women they were before the World Cup began.
Progress? Absolutely. Equality? Hardly.